We stopped in Andersonville, Georgia, on the way home from Orlando. Andersonville was the site of a Civil War prison camp. At one time, over 32,000 Federal troops were held there. When the U.S. Government stopped exchanging prisoners, Andersonville quickly became overcrowded. It was originally built to hold 10, 000 prisoners. Unsanitary conditions and food shortages caused many deaths at Andersonville. Captain Henry Wirz was held accountable for those deaths. He was the only Confederate officer punished for war crimes after hostilities ended.
Today the National Prisoner of War Museum is located just a few hundred yards from the site where Andersonville prison once stood. The museum tells the story of prisoners of war from every war that our nation has fought. The images and descriptions of the experiences of these men and women are gut-wrenching. The trials that they endured were exceeded, in many cases, only by their determination to survive and their commitment to their country.
There is also a national cemetery at Andersonville. The first soldiers buried there were those who had died at the prison camp. The white stones that mark the graves were added later. How much later, I am not sure.
Several of those stones indicated that an unknown U.S. soldier was buried underneath it. I tried to count them, but I kept losing count. I was struck by the deep sadness of the word “unknown”. The circumstances of their dying left their identity unknown. Who marked their passing? Who spoke about them? Who recounted their deeds, their sacrifices? There was no one there to name their names.
Yet, I could not concede that they were altogether unknown. Someone knew the names of those unknown soldiers. Someone knew them once a long time ago. They had left homes and families. Mothers and wives knew them — knew who they were and why they had left. They had left towns and cities. Neighbors knew who they were and wished them well when they left, and prayed for them while they were gone.
What word did those mothers and wives hear when their unknown soldier was buried? Did anyone tell the neighbors that their prayers had been to no avail? When did the waiting stop and the hope cease that the one they had known so well would come home? Did the agony of uncertainty ever diminish in the hearts of those who had known one of the ones who had died unknown so far from home?
To know and to be known is a special gift that God gives to each of us. In knowing and being known, we experience the joy and the pain of human relationships. In knowing God and being known by God, we experience the hope and fulfill the purpose for which we were created. Knowing that God knows who we are is our greatest source of strength and security. If God knows us, God will never forget us.
I pray today that souls that once inhabited the bodies that lie in the ground beneath those stones marked unknown are, in fact, known by the One who can never forget.